The city of Genève, although not the capital of Switzerland, has been called the smallest of the great capitals; the peace capital of the world, and the capital of luxury. Clean and calm, a rather small city (around 186 000 inhabitants) is the world center for diplomacy; the birthplace of Red Cross and Geneva Conventions; and home to the United Nations and numerous humanitarian international organizations.
The majority of Geneva residents are well-educated and open-minded, speak three or four languages, hold important jobs with the 171 diplomatic missions, 35 international organizations linked to the UN, or 250 non-governmental organizations, and their quality of life is higher than in some of the richest European cities.
Located on the bank of Lac Léman – the largest lake in Europe – surrounded by the Alps and Jura Mountains, Geneva is green, architecturally beautiful, and pedestrian-friendly.I flew to Geneva from Zurich in the first class of SWISS – an airline known for its comfort and excellent service. At the airport, an information booth attendant showed me a ticket machine where everyone coming to Geneva could get a free train ticket to the city and its vicinity.
It took me about five minutes to walk from the railway station to my hotel, and I’ve spent them all admiring the massive neo-classical facades decorated with sculptures, the shop windows, and the outdoor cafes, filled with well-dressed people.
Soon I was observing a snowy peak of Mont-Blanc and Jet d’Eau – a 140-meter high water jet in the middle of the lake – from my luxurious room in the historic Hôtel Le Richemond in the 1875 building, previously enjoyed by the luminaries like Marc Chagall, Charlie Chaplin, Louis Armstrong, Rita Hayworth, Sophie Loren, and Andy Warhol.A Geneva Transport Card, handed to me (same as to all other visitors to the city) at check-in, allowed for free use of public transportation, including boats, and I made a plan to ride closer to the Lake Geneva’s sparking landmark and explore other lakeshore attractions.
A strangely archaic construction with a Gothic spire in a little park under my window attracted my attention. It was decorated with columns and sculptures, and “guarded” by mythical griffons.As I’ve learned the next day during my city tour with an experienced multi-lingual guide, this copy of the 15th century Scaligeri mausoleum in Verona, Italy, was built in the 1870s, and contained the mummified remains of the infamous Duke of Brunswick Karl II, whose rule was severely criticized not only in his native Germany, but also in Paris and London where he’d moved later on. A corrupt and inept ruler, the unpopular Duke with poor physique and questionable mental health suffered from a phobia of being buried under ground. Spending the last years of his life in Geneva’s Hôtel Beau-Rivage, he made a will, leaving his enormous fortune to the city in exchange for being buried above the surface. The Duke’s burial funds were also used to erect several cultural landmarks in Geneva, among them the Opera House, and a music conservatory, where composer Franz List used to teach.
As fate and history would have it, the opulent Hôtel Beau-Rivage became a place of death for another 19th century royal person – a sensible, good looking, and popular with the people Empress Elizabeth (Sissi) of Austria. In 1898, an Italian anarchist fatally stabbed her in front of the hotel, where there is now a monument created by a contemporary sculptor. On the second floor of the hotel, there is a small memorial of Empress Sissi’s fan, gloves, and other personal belongings in a glass case.
The author of “Crime and Punishment,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky, had a sad stay in Geneva, where his newborn daughter Sophia, christened in 1866 Russian orthodox church (still active Cathédrale de l'Exaltation de la Sainte Croix) with gold onion domes, died in 1868.Even before this tragic family event, Dostoyevsky wasn’t especially enamored with Geneva, and called it in his letters “a cold, gray, and silly Protestant city.”
It’s a well-known fact that the great Russian writer wasn’t famous for his tolerance. Luckily, Geneva is.
Humanism and appreciation for life have always been expressed in the views of Geneva’s prominent citizens. As many other places in the center of Europe, Geneva has a long and complex history, ridden with conflicts and conquests. The major difference lies in the fact that history lessons aren’t taught in vain here. In 1815, after the Napoleonic Wars, a diplomat and a state official Charles Pictet de Rochemont came up with an idea of Switzerland’s permanent neutrality, and in 1863, after the Second Italian Independence War, Jean Henri Dunant founded the Red Cross.
In 1907, after a series of historical religious conflicts and political turmoil tied to the city’s transitions from French to Italian to German rule, and from Calvinism to Catholicism and back, Geneva adopted a law separating church and state, followed by the most progressive nations of the world.
As a result of its continuous policy of tolerance and neutrality, Geneva became the largest home for international organizations, and a prospering business and financial center. It’s “green” not only because there are 50 parks and wild life preserves in Geneva, but also because it rejected the use of nuclear power, and directed its efforts to the development of solar and hydraulic energy sources and the use of natural gas instead of coal.
All these and other amazing facts I’ve learned during the walking city tour which took me to the Old Town around the St. Peter’s Cathedral with its 157 steps to the top of the tower; the Reformation Wall – tribute to Europe’s reformers in a magnificent park with old chestnut trees; the largest in Switzerland modern art museum MAMCO, and Quartier des Bains – a contemporary art district with 12 galleries and five larger cultural institutions, and to the Flower Clock that shows the exact time of day in live blooms.
In the city with the centuries-old tradition of watchmaking and utmost respect for time, I happened to be late for my tour of the Patek Philippe Museum… While listening to my tour guide and trying to absorb the richness of the exposition, I regretted the lost time I could’ve spent in the museums halls filled with the wrist watches, pocket watches, pendant watches, brooch-, ring-, and fan watches, enamel miniatures, and musical automata created by the most prestigious brand, founded in 1839, and other esteemed watchmaking companies.
Slightly overwhelmed with the impressions of the day, I had a very traditional and relaxing dinner at the 18th century Brasserie de l'Hôtel de Ville in the Old Town. My three-sausage dish, Trilogie genevoise was nicely paired with Calvinus beer…
Next day, after an elegant and satisfying breakfast at my Hôtel Le Richemond, I embarked on a tour of the 18th century Italianate village Carouge within the city limits – an enclave of craftsmen and designers offering their wares in little shops among the secret gardens, and with a bustling produce and flower market in the middle of a cozy square with a fountain.
My knowledgeable tour guide took me to an award-winning artist-watchmaker; to an antique furniture repairman; to a bookshop selling books written by women authors; to a fragrant bath products shop with colorful hand-made soups looking like cream pastries; to a tea shop selling teas from all over the globe, and to hand-woven textiles shop.
At the market, I marveled at the bright bunches of summer fruit and vegetables, and bouquets of roses, peonies, and lilac in water-filled buckets.
When it was time for lunch, we boarded Savoie – one of the many cruise vessels belonging to SwissBoat company on Lake Geneva, and took a pleasure ride to France! Thanks to unobstructed no-visa passage between the countries bordering the lake, we were able to visit historical Yvoire – a medieval French village with an old castle and crooked cobblestone streets overflowing with ivies, climbing roses and begonias. There, on the French territory, I indulged in my favorite delicacy – foie gras, currently banned in my native California.
And yet, my best lunch in Geneva was in my hotel, Le Richemond, and for two good reasons. First, I enjoyed the company of my new friend, Geraldine.
Second, the hotel cooks have been trained by the world-famous celebrity chef Alain Ducasse.
On an open terrace of Le Jardin restaurant, I had puff pastry stuffed with chicken and garnished with market-fresh salad and edible flowers; ravioli stuffed with burrata in mashed asparagus sauce studded with tomato confit, and a decadent chocolate macaroon with chocolate sorbet. As if that wasn’t enough to make me feel happy and totally in love with Geneva, a plate of petit fours arrived, containing even more chocolate and macaroon treats, and meringue cookies, a.k.a. “kisses” (la bise in French).
More information at: www.geneva-tourism.ch.